Community Spotlight: Joy Liu, ServiceNow
Joy Liu strives to accelerate opportunities for design leadership in product.
After a career spent working everywhere from startups to household names like Google, Samsung, and ServiceNow, Joy’s seen product design applied in many contexts. In her work as an educator, she also recognizes what the next generation of product designers need to push the boundaries of what’s possible in the industry.
Erica Irish: What first attracted you to a career in product design?
Joy Liu: Early in life I knew I wanted to be a designer, I really enjoyed creating things myself. I also grew up in the age of GeoCities and MySpace, which foreshadowed my design career with webpages—specifically, highly customized message boards and webpages littered with GIFs and questionable layouts. At the time I didn’t know what type of design I would end up doing, but I really enjoyed it.
After I received a graphic design degree from ArtCenter College of Design I was applying for grad school. I took this job at a startup thinking it would just be a short-term, summer job before school and it was a chance for me to working on something tech-related before I end up in a design firm. I ended up doing everything from graphic design, to building interfaces, and figuring out how a user would hold the tablet as a guitar in their hands. This solidified my decision to stay in tech, so goodbye school. What really drew me in to choose product design was the collaboration, like working with engineers and figuring out how to make something work. It doesn’t take one person to build a product. It takes a whole team.
EI: It’s so true. There’s a lot of overlapping knowledge in product that teams need to be successful. But I imagine that can be tricky at times. How do you keep learning so you can be fully invested in the collaboration you described?
JL: I love to be a sponge in the beginning and absorb everything. I like to figure out how things work and how they’re put together. To give you an example, when I was working at Philosophie, we were doing a lot of Ruby on Rails development. And that’s when I started dabbling and trying to understand, okay, what is rails? How are the databases connected? How do you build a sustainable view so whatever fetched data can fit nicely in it? Understanding the structure and having a shared vocabulary helped me collaborate with the engineers that much better. I ended up helping research possible libraries to use or finding Github demos that convey what sort of interactions I want.
I’ve also had a lot of students ask me, do I have to code to be a designer? I always say, if that’s what you’re interested in, go for it. But I wouldn’t say it’s the only way. There are designers who come from customer service, or marketing or research. They can do stuff that I never could, like speak the business language well, and partner with other cross-functional peers better than I can. I chose to focus on the technical side, and it’s never a dull moment learning the framework I’m designing on top of.
EI: You began your product journey in a startup, but since then you’ve worked at some huge companies, including Google and Samsung. What has it been like to work in product design across these different types of organizations?
JL: What you are doing as a creative problem-solver doesn’t change that much. You still have people to collaborate with to build a great experience. However, you may need to be a design generalist and wear more hats at a smaller company versus being a specialist and working with other design disciplines in a larger organization.
The wide range of organizations helped me flex my creative muscle and understand what I enjoyed doing the most. Being a design team of one was exciting and enabled me to produce anything and everything. However, having design critique and design brainstorm sessions is really nice! Right now I enjoy working with other designers to solve large hairy problems together. I enjoy focusing on design strategy and uncovering what’s valuable for customers.
EI: What’s something that excites you in your current work at ServiceNow?
JL: ServiceNow provides a platform as a service to other enterprise companies, so our customers purchase and configure our platform to fit their workflows and business needs. Unlike consumer applications, where you have many choices and you can simply delete an app if you don’t like it, employees like a technical administrator or team lead at a company may not get a say in what software they can use at work.
I can actually talk about what excites me now! [laughs] We launched ServiceNow Impact in January; it’s a customer success platform that helps ServiceNow customers unlock their platform potential and bridge the gap between what they have today and what they want to achieve. On an individual level, it helps team leaders understand how their day-to-day activity affects the overall value of the platform and better manage up or down their organization.
Through user research, knowing what we’re building makes their jobs easier gets me excited.
EI: Beyond ServiceNow, you’re also regularly in touch with young people who might be interested in product since you teach at the California College of the Arts. How does your work with students shape your outlook on the product industry?
JL: The product industry has a lot of hands-on jobs — designers included. There are concepts and methodologies you can read from books or watch videos but the amount of knowledge you internalize through a design project or seeing someone playing with your prototype is incomparable. I try to recreate that job experience in a classroom and throw realistic assumptions at my students. It’s always refreshing to see a lightbulb moment go off when students realize their designs aren’t working because someone got confused or clicked the wrong button.
Personally, to do something from muscle memory is very different than teaching a concept to someone else. Something that I’ve most learned from teaching is how to effectively communicate abstract concepts to someone hearing it for the first time. It’s helped me with storytelling in my product design practices.
EI: If you could start your career over, as if you were one of those students, what’s something you would do differently to set yourself up for success?
JL: Design requires a lot of soft skills— even more so the higher up you move on the career ladder and those are the skills you don’t learn in school. You might practice constructive feedback during design critique, but no one really teaches it to you. To do it differently, I would probably skip learning Flash and instead work on my presentation skills, storytelling & convincing people to get to consensus or a shared vision.
EI: What’s something product designers aren’t talking about enough—especially if addressing that topic would make your discipline better?
JL: Obviously, UX design is a booming industry. It’s getting more and more competitive every day. It also feels like designers have a seat at the table as more and more companies mature in design thinking (yay!). What we need to revisit is, once we get that seat, what do we do with it? How do we keep advocating for users and a better product experience? What does that take? We know what tech and product leadership look like. Now we need to figure out what we mean by design leadership.